Some comments on the previous novels in the series, posted by readers.

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"Excellent. Felt as if I traveled with the main characters."

"Very interesting and compelling series."

"This series of books is awesome. A must read for historical fans of this era."

"Terrific concept and plot."

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020, by Bruce Corbett


This is a story that starts shortly after the death of King Athelstan, the son of King Edward and grandson of King Alfred the Great. Athelstan, supported by the Mercians, met stiff West Saxon resistence when he was nominated for the crown, but the sudden and unexpected death of his rival half-brother, Ethelweard, meant that the kingdome did not descend into civil war. Trying to expand West Saxon influence, Athelstan married one of his sisters to the Viking king who ruled most of Northumbria. Two years later, getting word of the impending death of the Viking king from his sister, Athelstan likely led or dispatched a large force of West Saxon fyrdmen north to report to his sister the queen and garrison Jorvik (York), the capital of the Viking kingdom.

Upon Athelstan’s death, his younger half-brother, Edmund, ascended to the throne, but Olaf Guthfrithson, Norse king of Dublin, soon arrived on the scene to contest control of Northumbria. Unable to raise enough southern troops to stop the Viking invader, and facing mass desertions from the Danes and Norsemen who lived in the territory, Edmund’s forces were forced to retreat south, leaving Olaf in control of the north. This story begins here.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reports that Athelstan conquered Northumbria, but gives no details. The loss of Northumbria to the Norse is reported, but the Chronicles are surprisingly silent on what exactly forced the young king to abandon the recently-won territory. The skirmishes and details presented on the following pages, therefore, are a figment of my imagination, although I would like to think that they are quite plausible. With the many garrisoned protective burhs that had been built across southern Britain to provide shelter and guard various strategic points, the Angles and Saxons should have been easily able to free up large numbers of fyrdmen to fight wherever they were needed. In fact, this was one of the secrets of West Saxon success. The system of fortifications allowed Wessex to keep the women and children safe while husbands and fathers, when called to arms, could be sent far from home for long periods of time. King Alfred, the genius behind the plan, had even gone so far as to divide the fyrdmen into town garrisons and a summer and a winter army.

There seems to be some question as to whether the Norse cousins Olaf Sihtricson and Ragnall Guthfrithson were rivals or co-rulers of the kingdom of Jorvik. I arbitrarily decided that they started out as co-rulers. Of course, Edgar and Apion will do their best to make the two into eventual rivals, balancing one against the other and greatly decreasing the power of each.

There is a discrepancy in my research between the Anglos-Saxon Chronicles and local legend concerning Cumbria and King Dunmail (presumably Dyfnwal III). The local legend has King Dunmail die in 945 AD. while fighting the combined armies of Scotland and Wessex, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles has the king die much later, in 975 AD. while on a pilgrimage to Rome. In this story, I opted to follow the legend from Cumbria.

While the word ‘Viking’ actually means to go on an overseas expedition, I use it in a very general sense in this story to loosely label any combination of Danes and Norwegians (Norse).

As always, I have attempted to separate facts from fiction in the Timeline (Appendix III). Individual words in italics generally have a special meaning and the details may be found in Appendix II.

I hope that you enjoy the story!

The author,

Bruce Corbett


The New King Arrives at York

Edgar, atheling and high commander of the army of Wessex, looked up at the banner flying over the ancient stone ramparts of the city of York. He turned in the saddle and spoke to the man riding at his side.

“Apion, my friend, it appears that our young and newly anointed king has returned from his coronation at last.”

“I am glad that he has arrived safely and hope he had an uneventful journey, Edgar, but I pray to Almighty God that he has managed to scrape together a couple of thousand fyrdmen when he was in the south, and he brought them back with him. Without a lot more men at our disposal, there is virtually no chance that we are going to keep hold of Northumbria for much longer. My spies tell me that Olaf’s army is growing larger with every day that passes.”

Edgar sighed as he looked ahead. “Well, I see no sign of a large army encampment outside of the gate, and, I must admit, our recent chats with some of the local jarls were hardly reassuring. It is pretty clear that none of our ‘loyal’ Northumbrians are intending to respond to our urgent call-to-arms.”

Apion grimaced. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, my friend. I am thinking that they are responding in large numbers.”

Edgar smiled in spite of himself. “Joining the Norse invaders is not what we had in mind for them when we sent out the call to muster, Spymaster! But on one thing we agree. We need a whole lot more men joining our side if we plan to hold on to this country.”

As the two friends approached the city gate, they could hear the quick tattoo of a fast-moving horse catching up to them. A single note on a signal horn indicated that a sentry on the wall had also spotted the galloping rider. Both riders turned to see if danger approached from behind, and Apion reflexively pushed back his cloak in order to allow easy access to his sheath of throwing saxes. He was well aware that both their heads would bring a significant amount of silver from a certain Viking king. Seeing only a single rider approaching, the two men relaxed and swung out of the saddle when they reached the west gate.

The rider arrived at the gate at almost the same time. Mud-spattered and exhausted, the man was barely able to stay in his saddle. As several guards blocked the entrance with their bodies and then moved toward him, he croaked out a few words.

“Message! Message for the Spymaster from Ealdorman Wilfrid!”

Apion spoke to the man. “I am Lord Apion, Courier. The man you seek. I judge by the condition of both you and your horse that you carry urgent news and have traveled a long way in a short time. Dismount, and you can deliver the message to me right now.”

Apion turned to the sentry now standing by the head of the messenger’s horse. “Daegal, take this man’s poor horse to the stables and tell the grooms to rub him down and then give him water, hay, and a feed of oats. This animal has more than earned his keep this day.”

The man known as the spymaster again turned to the rider. “What is your name, Fyrdman?”

“I am called Garr, Lord Apion!”

“Well, Garr, I am looking at your weapons, and I am puzzled. Your armor does not match your sword and helmet. Are you Saxon-born?”

“My helmet and sword comes from a dead Viking raider, Lord. I can only assume that he, in turn, took it from a dead Saxon.’ He shrugged. ‘It was much finer than my own, and the man had no further use for it after I chopped through his neck with my battle axe, so I took it. To answer your question, however, Lord, I am an Angle, from the Isle of Wight.”

“Well, Garr of Wight, I have a bed, hearty food, and a measure of good mead waiting for you, but first you have to earn it.”

Garr looked puzzled. “How do I do that, Lord?”

“You deliver to me the message you have clearly spent so much time and effort bringing me.”

“Yes, Lord! Excuse me!” The courier blushed, shook his head vigorously, and then struggled to dismount. Finally on the ground, he did his best to stand straight while he reported.

”We made it to near the west coast without incident, Lord. Tuns closed their gates to us, but no one challenged us or made any hostile moves. When we reached the tun of Lancaster, however, we found that it was already held by a strong force of Norsemen. When Ealdorman Wilfrid saw that Olaf’s Raven banner flew over the fort and the walls were crowded with armored warriors, he had us quickly retreat to the nearby ancient hill fort, with the hope that the elevation, along with the remains of the old ditches and walls, would give us at least some protection against the foe. He was sure that King Olaf would not give us the time either to escape the area or to build a proper marching fort.”

King Edmund interrupted. “And was he right, Garr?”

“Aye, Lord! When Olaf and his minions spotted us, they ran for their horses, mounted up, followed us, and, almost before we had a chance to unpack either our weapons or digging tools, the Vikings were on us! One wave after another, they just kept coming at us, Lord. We used up all our arrows and spears trying to stop them, and we killed or wounded hundreds of the bastards. There were thousands of them, however, and they just kept coming as fast as we could kill them.”

“But you are here.”

“Aye. We used the hill and the ancient walls as best we could, Lord. Just around dusk, they finally broke off. Ealdorman Wilfrid ordered us to light cooking fires, but to then quietly mount up and escape to the rear. A few brave walking wounded volunteered to stay behind to man the ramparts, poor as they were, and give the impression that we still actively manned the defenses. Those brave men sacrificed their lives to buy us a little time to escape.

I was sent to tell you that King Olaf of Dublin has conquered Lancaster and the western shore, and he should soon be on his way here. Lord, Ealdorman Wilfrid told me to inform you that there are no longer any friendly garrisons left between here and Lancaster. In fact, there are few men left anywhere in Northumbria willing or able to raise a sword against the heathen Vikings. Even with the fastest mount available, a spare horse and a lot of entreaties to God, I was barely able to make it past local settlers who seemed considerably more willing to show hostility now that I did not have hundreds of good fyrdmen at my back. As word gets out about Olaf's successful invasion, it seems pretty certain that more and more undecided jarls are going to declare for the Norse king.’

The man cleared his throat and spat on the ground. ‘Ealdorman Wilfrid told me to tell you that not only does Olaf’s Norse army outnumber us, but we have been betrayed! Throughout the land, the God-cursed Christian Danes are breaking their oaths of allegiance and are joining the pagan Viking king by the thousand. He also told me to report that he thinks it is unlikely that what remains of his battered forces can do much to stop the main Viking force from reaching the tun of York.

Ealdorman Wilfrid is making a fighting retreat, but he is greatly outnumbered. He told me to say that he advises you to get out of York while you still can! Once King Olaf’s army reaches the city, you will be vastly outnumbered, surrounded and trapped. He also said that there is nothing that Olaf would not sacrifice in order to see King Edmund safely dead!”

Edgar spoke to Apion. “Ealdorman Wilfrid must know that we cannot just abandon the hundreds of men, women, and children who came north with Queen Edith or followed us here from the southern lands, to say nothing of the loyal Northumbrians who have put their trust in the house of Egbert! It is our sacred duty to fight for the king’s loyal subjects!”

Apion replied. “Atheling, what the courier just said is that there are precious few loyal Northumbrian subjects left anywhere in the country, and we know that the few remaining are concentrated right here. Everything Wilfrid wanted us to know has been confirmed by various other sources in the last few nights, and by the local jarls we spoke with in the last few days.

Any Viking warriors outside of these walls who are still loyal to Wessex are likely running for their lives or already dead. Ealdorman Wilfrid has the only loyal force out there that I know of, but it sounds like it has been badly hurt.”

The courier spoke. “That is true, Lord.”

Edgar looked at the exhausted courier. “The ealdorman took some seven hundred good men with him when he rode west to reinforce Lancaster. Just how badly mauled is his army?”

“The ealdorman was unwounded when I left, Prince. His forces suffered serious losses in the battle at the old hill fort, but, thanks to the brave walking wounded and their sacrifice, we managed to break off contact and retreat to the north. Ealdorman Wilfrid's single biggest advantage is that all of his men are well mounted. The heavy losses at least means that they have a good collection of spare horses. The ealdorman told me he intends to continue to harass Olaf for as long as he has sufficient men and horses. He has promised to buy York as much time as he can possibly manage, but his men are exhausted and he has few resources left.”


Edgar and Apion Meet with King Edmund

Apion finished his conversation with the exhausted rider, gave his horse to one of the guards, and sent the courier off to get much-needed food and rest. Then, deep in thought, he and Edgar entered the tun and plodded slowly toward the king’s great hall. The king's own personal banner flying above the great hall and the sentries in front of the door only confirmed that the young atheling Edmund had returned from his royal coronation in the southern lands.

Edmund had just completed the long trip north from Kingston-upon-Thames, where, by the tradition established by his father and brother, kings of Wessex and Mercia held their coronation. Edgar knew that the king must also be exhausted from his long ride north, but he had to be made aware of the recent events in his troubled province of Northumbria.

The two men arrived at the planning room within the great hall that was grandly called a palace whenever the king was in residence. When the door sentries saw that it was the spymaster and the army commander who approached, they first snapped to attention and then hurried to open the doors for the two men.

As Edgar and Apion entered the room, the king looked up from examining the large-scale map laid out on the table, and, when the two new arrivals tried to kneel in his presence, Edmund quickly rose and put out his arms to embrace the two men in turn. He grinned at both of them.

“There is no need for such formality between us! Not so long ago I was a young cub carrying your night soil away. Come and give your new king a hug! I thank merciful God that I find the two of you alive and well! I can’t tell you how much I have missed you, but I was mollified by the knowledge that if anyone could stop Olaf from stealing all Northumbria while I was away, it would be you two.”

Edgar spoke first. “I regret that I cannot report much positive, Edmund. We have managed to hold on to the city of York itself, but almost all the other tuns and vills in Northumbria seem to have declared for Olaf.”

“I was told, when I arrived a few hours ago, that you were off on a diplomatic mission. Did you have any success?”

Edgar shrugged. “We could not raise an army of loyal Danes, if that is what you were wondering. We spoke to two local jarls and a couple of hersirs, but had little luck. Some of the Christian Danes are sympathetic to you, King, but they fear that they and their families will be executed if they dare to speak out against Olaf. There is little doubt that they are being intimidated, and in the end they will feel obliged to join Olaf and his all-conquering army.”

At that moment, the door flew open again and Lady Edith, the king’s sister, regent in the king's absence and former queen of Viking Northumbria, entered the room. She grinned at her half-brother. “Edmund, I just received word that you had arrived! Welcome back!’

She hugged him tightly, and then spoke again. ‘Brother, you left here as a young atheling, and now you return a king! Congratulations! I am only sorry that I missed your coronation!”

Edmund hugged her back. “You only missed it because I needed trustworthy people here in Northumbria while I wandered off to receive the crown. I suspect that it is only due to the three of you that I even hold York.’ He looked sad as he continued. ‘It seems that the number of my loyal Northumbrian subjects dwindle daily.”

Edith spoke. “Brother, did you bring an army north with you? The mutinies so far are mainly in the west, but it is slowly spreading eastward. If rebellion is to be stopped, it must be ruthlessly crushed, and soon!”

Edmund frowned. “I brought my comitatus, of course, as escort, and what men I could steal from the assembled ealdormen at Kingston-upon-Thames, and I prevailed upon the Mercian ealdormen to give me yet more when I rode back to Gloucester with them, but for all that, my entire force must number fewer than four hundred. I know that my brother Athelstan, before he died, ordered several thousand fyrdmen from the most powerful shires south of the Thames to ride north for the winter. Have they not shown up?”

Edgar sighed. “A few, Sire, but we have received hundreds, not thousands, and what forces we did receive were mainly composed of old men or beardless youths. Many even arrived on foot. Horses suddenly seem to be in short supply in Wessex.”

The young king looked furious. “By the beard of Moses! And we are expected to hold off a Norse army of veteran warriors with the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel?!'

Edmund continued. ‘Apion, I heard the signal horn sound as I was settling my escort in. I assume that the call was announcing that a courier was spotted. Did we receive any important news?”

Apion sighed. “ Aye, Sire, but not good news. Lancaster has fallen to the heathen Norsemen.”

“The messages for me that you sent to London by feathered courier were relayed to me at Kingston-upon-Thames, and I know you sent reinforcements under Ealdorman Wilfrid to strengthen Lancaster. What has happened to them?”

“That is the news we have just received, King. Ealdorman Wilfrid had no trouble reaching Lancaster, but found it to be already occupied by Olaf’s Norsemen, along with a large force of turncoat Danes. Severely outnumbered, Wilfrid retreated to the ancient hill fort nearby - where he was attacked and almost overwhelmed by Olaf and his Viking warriors. The constant attacks only stopped with the setting of the sun. As night progressed, Wilfrid and his fyrdmen managed to break off the action, escape the fort and use the cover of the darkness to retreat to the north.
When the courier left his side, Wilfrid was making a fighting retreat, but the courier held out no hope that Wilfrid could do more than perhaps slow down the Norsemen and their allies with small raids and ambushes. He also confirmed that our once loyal Viking subjects are joining Olaf’s ranks in large numbers.”

Apion, spymaster and advisor to the young king, saw the distress on Edmund’s face, and he spoke gently. “And what would you like to do, Sire?”

“Do? You know, I learned a great deal from both of your fathers, but neither of them ever talked about how not to lose an entire kingdom at one go!'

He looked down at the floor. 'I seem to have done a remarkable job of it.”
Apion looked at the young king with pity. Just crowned king of a disintegrating empire on the island of Britain, Edmund was, in truth, only a boy eighteen years of age. Apion had known the boy almost since he was born, and he knew that Edmund had the stuff to be a great king, but with his brother Athelstan’s sudden death, the title had been thrust on him much too soon.

Edmund continued. “What I would like to do more than anything is to lead a massive army against this upstart king and his followers and the traitors who have broken their sacred oaths to join his ranks. It would give me great pleasure to leave their various body parts strewn from here to the western coast!”
Apion knew that it was important for the young king to talk through his frustration, and he urged him to continue. “But?”

“But, Apion, unless a massive number of our lost West Saxon fyrdmen show up, and soon, I know that we simply don’t have enough men to stand against Olaf. You tell me Ealdorman Wilfrid’s force of West Saxon fyrdmen has been savaged. Now we know why the Northumbrian jarls and hersirs have not responded to our call-to-arms, and the West Saxon fyrdmen of the Winter Army my brother sent for are, for the most part, conspicuous by their absence. You tell me mere dribbles of men have arrived after the ealdormen were ordered some months ago to send a strong West Saxon army north! Even after my sternly worded reminder at the time of my coronation, our fyrdmen have not arrived. We will see if any ealdormen show up soon with their armies!'

The king sighed. 'From the sounds of it, however, if they do not show up very soon, then it will be too late.
Meanwhile, Olaf has his feet dry, he already holds at least one western stronghold, he is definitely coming at us, and our Norse and Danish former subjects seem to be joining his ranks in droves.”

Apion replied. “Sire, Ealdorman Wilfrid stated that, even if we manage to recall any remaining loyal fyrdmen we might have scattered anywhere within the kingdom, and add Wilfrid’s surviving warriors to York’s city garrison, we would still be unlikely to be able to hold on to the city! His strong recommendation is for us to flee the city and abandon the entire kingdom while there is still an open avenue of escape.”

Edgar nodded. “Edmund, I am not surprised at the turn of events. It is to be expected that the Norse and even the Danes would rise against us if they saw an opportunity. After all, they did not exactly volunteer to join the West Saxon empire. When Edith here sent word that the Viking king of Jorvik - her husband - lay ill, Athelstan managed to conquer the entire kingdom by the simple expedient of sending a fleet with a strong contingent of his fyrdmen north to report to the queen and occupy the capital in her name.

Under her command, and then his, when Athelstan eventually arrived with yet more men, we quickly garrisoned the main tuns across the kingdom with his West Saxon fyrdmen, and, finally, he took the leaders’ eldest sons as hostages. The Northumbrian jarls swore allegiance to Wessex because they had little alternative if they wanted to keep their land, see their sons again, or even live. The occupation was both very efficient and effective, but it hardly endeared us to our new Viking subjects. We should not be surprised by their apparent disloyalty.”

Edmund replied. “Not a single child was harmed. We sent the sons of the jarls and hersirs south to be educated in our royal schools, alongside our own children!”

“Aye, King, but whatever we called that little manoeuver, the jarls and hersirs knew that their sons were going south to our royal schools to act as hostages . . . and then your brother, Athelstan, suddenly died, and Olaf arrived with his army to claim his inheritance.”

Edmund replied. “Aye, and then along came Olaf.”

“King, what the Danes and Norse are doing is not unexpected. They are following the man who was originally promised the Northumbrian throne, one of their own - a great warrior and a pagan Norse leader. In their eyes, they are merely attempting to regain their freedom from what they see as an illegal usurpation of the throne.”
“Edgar, I know I am only a young pup, but even I know that if we are forced to abandon the city of York, then we will probably lose all Northumbria! There must be something that we can do!”

“There is, Sire, though you may not like my words.”

“If a man ever needed advice, my friend, it’s me! Speak the words in your heart without fear of hurting my feelings.”

“King, the loss of the tun of Lancaster is a setback, and the loss of the city of York would be problematic, but it is not the end of the story. Save your loyal subjects by taking them south to safety, and we can start dealing with the West Saxon or Mercian ealdormen back home who have betrayed their oaths to you. Once our southern homeland is settled and you have our home shires solidly behind you, then, and only then, we can start planning on how to remedy the situation here in Northumbria.”

Edmund retorted angrily.“To retreat to the south is to bring shame to the house of Egbert, our royal house! How can I go home and face our West Saxon and Mercian subjects after being driven out of the north like a whipped puppy?”

Edgar spoke. “Sire, the question is, ‘how can they face you and hold their heads high?’ You have done nothing wrong. Your very grandfather, Alfred, now honored with the title of ‘Great’ by your subjects, huddled with my father on a little island called Athelney. There he hid from King Guthrum’s Great Viking Army. Yet from that marsh, with careful preparation, he managed to raise a West Saxon army that came together in the spring and decisively crushed King Guthrum’s army, forcing him to sue for peace and, not incidently, convinced him to be baptized as a Christian. I cannot deny that our withdrawal from Northumbria is a serious setback, Sire, but you must not view it as a final defeat.”

The king slumped in his seat. “Even if I accept that your proposal is the most logical plan-of-action, and don’t think that I have not thought about it, I am not sure that we can retreat even if we want to! If we managed to gather all the remaining loyal Northumbrian, East Anglian, Mercian and West Saxon subjects to this location and then left for the south, we would form a long and very slow column as we attempted to march everyone into safe Mercian territory. Odds are good that Olaf’s army, well mounted and unburdened with women and children, could catch up and, vastly outnumbered and caught in the open, we could face annihilation at the hands of his warriors.”

“But Sire, we have ships tied up to the city docks that can be used for the evacuation.”

“Aye, we have a small fleet tied up or beached along the river, but there are not enough ships to evacuate all the people who might wish to flee, and, as God is my witness, I am not willing to abandon hundreds of innocent subjects in order to save my own skin.”

Edgar replied. “Then we use more ships.”

The king sighed. “The Eastern Fleet sits in the south, Edgar, with a few vessels at London, and the rest at Rochester. Though it is late in the season for travel by sea, we can certainly send for the ships. My great fear, however, is that Olaf and his pagan army will arrive here long before Osred can gather his men and sail the fleet this far north. Most of his crews have probably already been released for the winter season.”

Edgar suddenly smiled. “Actually, King, they are not. Osred and the Eastern Fleet is already on its way here!”

The king looked at the son of the great Prince Ambrose in shock. “Edgar, how is that possible?”

“King, while you were away at your coronation, a feathered messenger arrived from Commander Osred. He had just left you at Kingston-upon-Thames, returned to London, and there he noticed that the entire winter levy of fyrdmen from Somerset consisted of no more than a few dozen lonely warriors, none of whom were related to or beloved by the ruling family. Realizing that at least some of the ealdormen were choosing to not send their full quotas of men north, as your brother had commanded before his death, Osred ordered up his ship crews and sent a message asking what he should do. By that time, you were on the road north and impossible to reach, so, as duly appointed army commander, I took it upon myself to order him to stop in Kent, double-crew his ships with as many loyal Kentish fyrdmen as he could scrounge up in a short time, and then to head for the Ouse River and here. Edmund, I hope that in so doing, I did not overstep my authority.”

Edmund grinned, got out of his seat, walked over to his chief commander and then wrapped the atheling in a fierce bear hug. “It is the job of my army commander to command! I thank God that, in my absence, you acted on your own initiative. It is possible that your decisive action just might have saved the life of every loyal subject in this city! How long ago did this communication take place?”

“The messenger bird flew south perhaps seven nights ago, King.”

“Thanks be to merciful God! Then if all went well, an entire West Saxon fleet should be coming upriver some time in the next seven nights. That should be enough men and ships to allow us to have a good chance to either hold York, or at least allow for a complete evacuation!”

Edgar spoke. “King, with the extra men, we might be able to hold the tun if you insist, but to what purpose? Olaf will just keep recruiting or conscripting more men until he vastly outnumbers us, and at that point he will be able to starve us out or overwhelm us, and, cut off from our ships by superior numbers, we will have no hope of retreat. We will be facing an honorable death, but, make no mistake, death it will be.”

The king looked thoughtful. “Unless, my friend, we can get a West Saxon army to come north. I understand why the northern Mercian shires are hesitant to send any fyrdmen, since Olaf is close to their border and, stirred up by our Irish Viking king, sea raiders have started to regularly land and raid along the coast in increasing numbers, but we have enough sworn warriors south of the Thames to crush this upstart king several times over!”

Apion replied. “You are right, Sire, and that is why your brother originally sent for fyrdmen mainly from the shires south of the Thames. Because of the size and proximity of Olaf’s army, he avoided calling up forces from the northern Mercian shires. We agreed to intentionally leave the northern Mercian fyrdmen in place to ensure we had a strong bulwork to hold Olaf if he tried to cross the Northumbrian frontier and raid our Mercian shires.”

Edgar sighed. “King, I am very sad to report that it was your southern Saxon and Angle ealdormen who have betrayed you. In spite of your selection by the witans of both Mercia and Wessex, several of your ‘loyal’ ealdormen evidently chose not to send the warriors of your army north as they were commanded.”

Edmund spoke. “As you say, I have been duly anointed king and at Kingston-upon-Thames the ealdormen of Mercia, East Anglia and southern Britain gave me their oaths of obedience! I am having trouble understanding what went wrong. Could that bitch mother, Elfflaed, who caused so much strife in her attempts to get my squirrel-brained half-brothers on the throne, be behind this?

Correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to remember my brother Athelstan decreeing that, rather than giving our former queen a particularly unpleasant but well-deserved death, she would be allowed to spend the rest of her life in a convent devoting her life to the greater glory of God.”

Edgar smiled. “He did, Sire, and it came to pass, more or less.”

“More or less?”

“Apparently when she arrived at her new home, a convent, she angrily refused to become a novice. The convent’s Mother Superior then decided to accept her in the role of servant.”

Edmund looked amused. “A former queen cleaning chamber pots, doing laundry and cooking for a body of nuns! That woman always had delusions of grandeur. I bet that our bitch queen didn’t like that one little bit! I’m surprised that she cooperated in any way.”

The smile returned to Edgar’s face. “The Mother Superior was a tough old lady, and she was not prepared to accept any insolence or disobedience from either novice, servant or former queen. She tended to use a very thick leather strap she liked to call ‘Bertha’ to drive thoughts of disobedience from those who opposed what she saw as God’s will. The guards we left in the nearest tun to make sure she stayed put returned to court a few years ago and reported that a fever had finally sent your favorite former queen to God.”

The king looked grim. “I rather suspect that God’s judgement would have been to send that woman to a very hot and uncomfortable place, but if it was not her, then who has preached mutiny? Who, in all of Wessex or Mercia, would dare betray me in this fashion?”

Edgar turned to Apion. “Well, Spymaster, with your many agents, you have your finger on the pulse of both the West Saxon and Mercian kingdoms. Who do you think is behind this sudden disobedience?”

“Who, or what? I think, Atheling, that it is a combination of factors.”
Edgar looked puzzled. “Such as?”

“Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but King Edmund is still a very young man. He is not well known, or apparently much feared in the south. In fact, since well before Athelstan’s death, he has not been much seen in any of our southern shires.”
Edmund protested. “Of course not! I only went south to meet with the Mercian and West Saxon witans, and then I remained until I was crowned. After that, I jumped on a horse and rode at breakneck speed in order to get back here so I could try and keep us from losing Northumbria to King Olaf! Even with all the effort expended, it seems like we are about to lose the struggle.’

Edmund sighed. ‘My brother, bless his soul, did not have these problems!”
Apion responded. “Your brother did have several problems, King, but it was when you were still a young lad and unlikely to remember. The armies of three West Saxon ealdormen, all related to Elfflaed, the bitch queen you have been referring to, formed a West Saxon rebel army in order to prevent Athelstan from ascending to the throne, even though Mercia had already accepted him as king. Several years later, Athelstan was actually kidnaped, and he was moments away from being blinded by a traitorous thane called Alfred, when my father and Prince Ambrose managed to rescue him.

After those victories, however, Athelstan’s reputation grew steadily. He had an unblemished record in battle. Upset as they were by his usurpation of the Viking throne, the Northumbrians decided not to challenge him when he backed up his sister’s authority with a powerful southern army.”

“Why not? They seem willing enough to stand up to me!”

Apion spoke. “As was previously said - before they could react to the arrival of Athelstan’s army, the sons of the leaders were gone - sent to our southern royal schools. Most of the more important jarls had been resident in York at the time, as they jockeyed for power after their king’s death. They were kept here in the capital by Edith’s men.

Don’t forget, too, that whether he was promised the Northumbrian throne or not, Olaf was far away in Dublin. When he tried to cross the Hibernian Sea the first time, Osred seized several of his cargo-laden knarrs and sank or at least damaged a couple of his precious long-ships. It was only with Olaf’s successful landing, considerably later and with a large Viking army, that the question of rebellion seriously arose.”
Edmund nodded. “Athelstan was my half-brother and an effective enough commander, but he told me several times that his victories were largely due to the genius of your two fathers, Ambrose and Polonius. The unadorned truth is that your fathers may have been the greatest generals this land has produced since the days of the legendary Arthur.”

Apion shrugged. “It is true that the name ‘Daneslayer’ generally caused panic amongst our enemies, and Polonius was greatly feared for his throwing saxes, his knowledge and his magic. Sire, you are right. Even our enemies sang ballads about the mysterious Polonius and his friend the Daneslayer. They were known beyond Britain and greatly feared as men who had brought down kings and never lost a battle.”

“Then you are saying that between us we simply do not have a fearsome enough reputation? Is that why my sworn fyrdmen aren't coming north, Apion?”

“Sire, as I said, there are many reasons. It may be true that, even together, we do not terrify the enemy. I tend to believe the theory, however, that the fighting men were withheld intentionally, to ensure that you would not survive Olaf's attack!
As you say, we have been mainly in the north since before your brother’s death, trying to build burhs and establish Northumbria as a West Saxon province. I have received several reports that there has been a breakdown of law and order in the south. In the absence of a firm hand, the southern ealdormen are feuding amongst themselves and using their fighting men to settle arguments instead of appealing to you.”

The king interrupted. “Because of my tender age or my physical absence?”

Apion replied. “Possibly both, Sire. At the same time, it is true that they are facing lightning coastal raids from bands of Norsemen, and the Welsh have been slipping over Offa’s Dyke again. I suspect that with these kinds of threats at home, the ealdormen feel the need to keep their fighting men close by their sides. They hesitate to send their best fighters north when they don't know if or when they could be fighting for their very lives back in their home shires. Last, but far from least, I have had unsubstantiated reports of mysterious Viking ships landing cargoes in isolated coves late at night.

Edmund stared at Apion. “What are you saying, Spymaster?”

“Someone has been unloading small but heavy boxes on our southern shores by night.”

“What was in the boxes?”

“They are unsubstantiated and sketchy reports, Sire, but it is at least possible that Viking gold or silver prompted our traitorous ealdormen to refuse to send their fyrdmen north.”

“But such an act is treasonable and punishable by death! Surely our ealdormen wouldn’t dare collude with the enemy in such a way!”

Edgar spoke. “What would have likely happened, King, if Osred did not bring the fleet?”

“Why, I could have fled like a coward and abandoned my people, or we would have no doubt died on the ramparts of this very city, bravely attempting to hold off hordes of pagan warriors.”

“Then Olaf’s gold and silver, assuming it was from him, would have been well spent. He would rule in Northumbria and another atheling - likely one from another family than the House of Egbert, would be chosen by the West Saxon witan to rule a smaller and weaker Wessex. Mercia might decide to go its own way, and suddenly Wessex would be only one power amongst several, and thus little threat to a strong and Viking-ruled Northumbria.”

Edmund turned to Apion. “I would know more, Spymaster. I need to know names. Which ealdormen are suspect?

“Kent and Cornwall sent their quotas. We did not ask for many from East Anglia or Mercia. Your brother wanted to leave in place a strong defensive force across the northern territories.”

“But they sent their quota of fyrdmen?

“Yes, Sire. The bulk of the army was to come from Somerset and Devonshire. It was their turn to supply most of the men for our winter army.”


“Cuthbert of Somerset sent a paltry few, and Otto of Devonshire sent nobody.”

“Both related to the bitch queen! And for the rest?”

“Uncertain, King. It was not their turn this year to send large contingents.”

“Spymaster, please put all your resources on it.”

“Yes, Sire!”

Edgar spoke. “Edmund, your grandfather, the great King Alfred, had a similar discipline problem, though his problem was with fyrdmen who deserted. He was forced to hang many good warriors whose only crime was to try to go home to defend their land, their wives and their children.”

Edmund spoke. “And that was the very reason that your two fathers helped King Alfred set up protective burhs, was it not?”

“Absolutely true, Sire. The burhs were set up so the people had a sanctuary in time of need. And, equally important, once the burhs were assigned garrison troops, the remaining fyrdmen were freed up to ride off anywhere they were needed, all the while knowing that their loved ones had both guardians and a sanctuary safe from any enemy.

In fact, I would venture to say that that is the main reason for Wessex’s long-term success. While we have been in the north subduing Northumbria, however, outlaws run rampant in the south, petty arguments are settled by brute force, Norse marauders slip ashore, and the Welsh raiders dare to cross our frontiers.”

The king sighed. “I hear you, Spymaster. So what are we going to do about it? Even including the men of Osred’s fleet, we are short fyrdmen, and it seems that we are soon to face a ruthless enemy whose numbers apparently grow nightly.”

“Sire, I am in total agreement with Edgar. There is a time to stand and fight, and a time to run. I propose that we load the ships of our fleet with your court and any Northumbrians who wish to come with us when the ships arrive, and we go back south.”

Edmund looked at his spymaster. “I understand your logic. I just hate to give up everything that we have fought so hard for here. Without Olaf’s interference, I think that we would have been just months away from complete victory. Thanks to the ingenuity of my brother and my sister, Northumbria was about to become an integral part of the West Saxon empire!”

Apion replied. “But in spite of our best efforts, the Norse king of Dublin did finally make it across the Hibernian Sea, Sire, and with his army intact. The Danes and Norsemen already settled here have risen up against our rule. Most important of all, for whatever reason, the ealdormen of two shires refused to send any significant numbers of their fighting men north when called upon. The shires south of the Thames are the true heart of our empire, and, without them, there is no chance of victory.”

The king sighed again. “Then I guess I am forced to accept that we must run home with our tails between our legs. So what do we do now?”

Apion spoke suddenly. “Sire, there are two things that can keep us from successfully escaping.”

“And what is the first, Spymaster?”

“If Olaf thinks of it, he can prevent the West Saxon fleet from arriving to rescue us, or even prevent us from leaving.”

Edmund replied. “Of course! The little fort built at the Selby narrows that was built to control navigation on the Ouse River! It is not much of a fort, but if Olaf manages to capture it, he could use the onagers there to effectively sink any ship of ours that tries to go either up or downriver.”

Edgar pulled absently on his beard. “Unless, of course, we send a very smart commander, along with his exceedingly well-trained engineers, to destroy the overgrown onagers that we so carefully built and then aimed at the narrow ship channel.”

Edmund smiled. “I think I know just the man for the job! A wizard himself, I understand that he is the son of one of the world’s greatest and most famous wizards.”

Edgar smiled back. “You mean the designer himself, son of the great Byzantine wizard?”

“None other.”

“Exactly the man I had in mind, King!”

Apion groaned. “And what impossible magic trick do you expect from your humble junior wizard this time?”

Edgar replied. “It is simple, junior-but-still-mighty-wizard. We must have the giant onagers disappear so Olaf is unable to use them to dominate and control the river.”
Apion frowned. “Edgar, may I humbly remind you that the onagers are massive beasts, intentionally built to be impossible to remove and capable of hurling a stone heavy enough to sink a ship with a single solid hit.”

“A clever wizard might consider removing any stores of Pernicious Fire left there, and burning the beams and cutting the tension ropes,” said Edgar.

Apion replied. “Remember, great general, that many of the nearby Northumbrians have worked with and been trained by none other than myself to man and maintain the weapons. With enough carpenters, they would be able to cut new beams and replace any burned parts within a day or two. They could probably also manage to replace the heavy ropes in fairly short order, even if we cut them into short lengths.”

Edgar smiled again. “Ah, but that is where your invisibility cloak comes in, junior wizard.”

“Perhaps the great general would deign to explain to a poor and ignorant wizard how this particular magic trick is supposed to work.”

“Why, even to a simple barbarian West Saxon, the solution is simplicity itself.”

“I am humbled before both your presence and your logic. I wait for your sage advice, mighty general.”

Edgar smiled. “That will be the day! Still, what would happen if your industrious engineers simply removed all the iron components of the onagers and loaded them aboard one of our ships?”

Apion looked thoughtful. “I think that you are trying to tell me to leave the wooden beams alone, but take the iron braces, bolts, brackets and supports.”

Edgar spoke. “By all means burn the timbers, if you can. You could even use whatever supplies of your father’s famous Pernicious Fire that are stored there to make sure they are thoroughly destroyed. I was rather thinking, however, that it is the metal parts that would be irreplaceable to the Vikings. Without proper examples to work from, it would take even the best and most experienced Viking smiths a great deal of time and effort to reproduce your brilliantly designed iron fittings. It would surely require a lengthy process of trial and error.”

The spymaster smiled in reply. “My good friend, I must admit that sometimes even a barbarian can come up with an idea worthy of note.”

“And not just any old barbarian, my friend, but a West Saxon barbarian prince.”

“Yes, you are right! It truly shows the glory of God’s awesome power that even a barbarian West Saxon prince could come up with such an idea!”

King Edmund stood again. “Then it is settled! Apion, would you take a fast ship and head downriver at first light? If we intend to return to the safety of the south, it is critical that we render the war weapons in that fort harmless, and as soon as possible. All our plans will be for naught if Olaf beats us to that fort and heavily garrisons it.”

Apion spoke. “Sire, would you mind if I assigned the task to my chief engineer? He is experienced and as capable as me in this task.”

“Because you wish to continue to work with Edgar?”

“Ia a word, Sire - yes. Brilliant as he is, just between you and me, I find that the atheling often needs my help. And my wizard’s intuition tells me that you are about to send him off on a mighty adventure, where he is likely to need all the help he can get.”

Edmund smiled. “You said that you had two concerns. I am using my barbarian wit and guessing that your second concern was that Olaf could arrive here and trap us within these walls before the fleet arrives. As to your question - far be it for me to separate two commanders who work so well together. Just make sure your chief engineer is properly briefed. All our lives may depend on those weapons being incapacitated!”

“Yes, Sire! If I may be excused, even a mighty wizard has a great deal to do if his engineers are to sail at first light.”

Edmund replied. “Stay for another minute, my friend. I want your opinion on my other thoughts.”

Apion sat back down. “Of course, Sire.”

“Good. I want messengers to ride at first light. Send both horsemen and any feathered friends we have left in the coops. I want to recall all loyal subjects, whether West Saxon or Northumbrian, to the capital, immediately.”
Edgar asked a question. “What about Ealdorman Wilfrid and his warriors, King?”
“Except them. If we can manage to communicate with them, I want them told to keep harassing Olaf’s men, and I need them to act as spies, but under no circumstances are they to fight a pitched battle. Most of all, I need them to stay alive!”

Edgar spoke again. “And what would you like me to do, King?”

The king turned to his friend and high commander. “I suspect that our astute wizard here has already guessed. I want you to strip York of every able-bodied warrior that you can find, and then I want you to ride west.”

Edgar looked concerned. “I would estimate, Edmund, that if I actually took every man here, I could gather a little more than a thousand warriors, but if I take the garrison and the Personal Guard of both you and Edith, I leave you and the city virtually defenseless!”

“If you do not delay Olaf and his army until Osred arrives and we can load up the ships, Edgar, then we are as good as dead anyway. It is a risk that we have to take. Besides, I doubt that Olaf would ever think that we would be so rash, and I am hoping that by the time he finds out what we have done, we will all be safely in secure West Saxon territory.”

“Make no mistake, Sire, Olaf is no fool. He no doubt has spies watching us even now.”

“Aye, but unlike our feathered couriers, they have to ride horses right across the width of the island to deliver news. I remember many stories of the effectiveness of the Long Ride from my childhood, and it is my hope that your force can close on Olaf before the enemy messengers get there. In fact, if we can get a bird to him, Ealdorman Wilfrid can spread a net between here and Olaf’s army that could prevent any travelers heading west from carrying inconvenient tales.”

“And kill them?”

“Detain them until after you have a chance to strike at Olaf.”

“Apion’s last spy reported that Olaf has a minimum of two or three thousand warriors at his back, King, while I will have a little more than a thousand men and hopefully the element of surprise. What are your exact orders?”

“Join up with Ealdorman Wilfrid. Broga’s scouts can show you the way. Harass. Raid. Make a surprise attack if you can, but I do not want you to fight pitched battles. Feint and run. Steal horses. Burn supply wagons. Destroy any foraging columns that get separated from the main force. I want you to slow him down more than I want you to kill his warriors. If you stand and fight, then Olaf can trade man for man, and with his larger numbers, he will just bleed you dry. You do not have the men to meet him in open combat, and, above all, I want you to stay alive!”

Edgar bowed to Edmund. “It will be as you commend, King.”


Final Plans

Edmund looked around the room. “Then it is agreed? We load up everything and everybody we can, and we head for Wessex once Osred’s fleet arrives and our brave warriors return.”

Edgar spoke. “And we leave neither food nor shelter for the enemy, King.”

Edmund turned to his sister. “Edith?”

The former queen looked close to tears. “Aye, agreed, though with great reluctance. What you are telling me is that we must destroy everything useful that we have built here over the years.”

Edgar frowned. “Absolutely true, Edith. As far as I am concerned, Olaf can sleep in the snow and eat turds. I want to leave him nothing useful.”

Edith replied. “We can’t take down the walls, Edgar. I don’t want my people to be forced into that backbreaking labor when we have to pack and salvage what we can.”

“No, Queen, but we can burn everything flammable as we leave. That will leave Olaf without adequate food or shelter for the winter.
Edgar turned to Edmund. “Going to Wessex is not going to be without it's problems, King.”

The king responded. “Oh. How so?”

“It is going to be a very dangerous time for you. When you get home, you may have to separate heads from the bodies of some of your most influential ealdormen. By not sending their quota of warriors north, they have betrayed their sacred oaths to you. At the least, you will have to replace some of the leaders with men you can trust, and, handled carelessly, any such efforts in that regard could easily lead to armed rebellion in the West Saxon homeland.”

“Why do you see that as a problem, Edgar?”

“Remember, King. In our system it is the ealdormen who command the shire armies, and it is the ealdormen who receive the oaths of loyalty from the fyrdmen. Your only personal warriors are your comitatus - your Personal Guardsmen.”

“And I command the ealdormen!”

“Yes you do, King, unless the ealdormen choose to ignore your orders - as a few already seem to have done. And your death would likely solve several serious problems in one swoop. We must be on guard at all times for treachery.”

“Ah, I think I see your point, Atheling. Then I suppose that we must plan carefully! It is clear to me that, at all costs, I must re-assert complete control over the home shires. As you said not long ago, they are the bedrock of my kingdom! Without most of Mercia and Wessex in line, I realize that I may be unable to keep the loyalty of the shires of northern Mercia and East Anglia, let alone retake Northumbria.”

Apion spoke. “Or even hold Wessex and keep your life, Sire. Don’t forget that there is a very strong West Saxon family who has already caused our house no end of grief. The former bitch queen, Elfflaed, may have died in her convent and been buried, but she had several very wealthy and powerful relatives who supported the cause of her children. Some of those relatives are still in positions of great power and likely to be the source of at least a portion of your trouble.”

Edmund nodded. “No, you are right, my friends - my grandfather's dream has been betrayed, and by the good God, I will lop off as many heads as necessary to put down treason. Will you and Edgar help me?”

Apion replied. “Sire, we are both at your service, now and forever. As you command, we will obey!”

Edmund looked, in turn, at each of the people in the room. “But first, we must buy the time for Osred to get here, and then time to load and board the ships.”

Edgar spoke. “Edmund, if you and Edith can start organizing the packing and loading, Apion and I will leave in two nights with every man you can spare.”

“We are agreed. Go and get some rest now. We will talk tomorrow, before you leave.”

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